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Traveling with kids? Here’s how to rethink your flights.


As we head into the last travel weekend of the summer, we have visions of fun-filled vacation and relaxation with family on our minds.

Well maybe yes, but probably not if you plan to fly.

Traveling in 2017 has become tricky, expensive, anxiety producing and requires incredible preparation and even restraint. Stories of air-travel gone bad is regular and on the rise.

Flying may be rough, but until you’ve attempted to get on a plane with your family, you are playing in the minor leagues.

Tips for flying with young kids

Take, for example, the tale of Naiade, 42; her wife, Holly, 40, and their daughter Penelope, 2. After a delayed flight from Oakland, Calif., to Long Island, N.Y., on Southwest this summer, they were offered to cut their losses and take a new flight the next day. When they returned, their flight was delayed again.

Flying into Denver for a connection, they weren’t given priority deplaning despite landing just before the next departure. The family rushed to the next plane, but didn’t make it in time for family boarding, leaving them without seats together. There was back and forth between the flight crew and the family, and a loud “I should not have to beg to be seated with my family,” by Naiade.

A passenger on the flight, Allyson Downey, (ironically the founder of wee Spring, a baby advice company), found three seats together for the family. Finally settled three across and ready to go, a crew member asked Naiade if she’d like to file a complaint. Next, Naiade was told that the captain asked her to leave the flight for noncompliance. The situation only settled down (and the family allowed to stay) when fellow passengers began to pull out phones and document the incident. (Southwest Airlines declined to comment and said no complaint had been filed.)

Downey described the airline as “less than helpful and the whole of the time from boarding to eventually taking off as tense, awkward and almost scary.”

Who are you, anyway?

“Parents are business travelers too,” Downey said to me in an interview the following week. Downey is a very regular business traveler — so much so, that she earned enough points to take her family of four to South Africa for a vacation. But she notices a very different, lower standard of care when she travels with her family.

Caitlin Zaino, founder of Porter and Sail, a travel concierge service, has very similar feedback when flying alone as opposed to with her newborn. “When women fly with their children, we are no longer treated as executive-level frequent travelers,”  Zaino said. “I travel regularly with my son. He’s still breast-feeding so when I need to travel for work, he comes with me. I find I am no longer seen as that executive traveler. I’m ‘infant in arms.’

“Even when I travel without him, there’s no place to pump in flight (I was once told to use the galley in the middle of the aircraft), and freezer bags for milk on the way home have been tossed by security, rendering days of breast milk unusable,” she said.

Zaino sums it up: “My status as mother overtakes my status as CEO or frequent traveler.” It is not the same experience in terms of respect or customer care, she says. Not even close.

Family Travel Requires Wild Amounts of Patience

Author Jessica Shyba has a large family who travels quite often. She shared her take on family travel via email. “We fly as a party of seven kids aged 10, 8, 5, 2, 6 months. When available, we only fly JetBlue and Virgin due to their calmness, care for families, and consistency. Traveling is hard, no matter what, though. Everyone is stressed out and impatient,” she said.

Other parents share that flying with kids requires not only a clear understanding of the rules and procedures but also high cost of “extras” to make it work well.

Downey knows that air travel is not an inexpensive proposition with kids, even down to the food. “None of the airlines stock individual cartons of milk or kid-friendly food. Our pre-flight routine includes foraging from Starbucks to newsstands purchasing milk and provisions for the kids.”

Natalie Goldberg Klein, owner of Los Angeles-based Hot Moms Club, says the cost goes up, quickly, when traveling with kids. “Pay to be seated together, pay to upgrade seats to sit closer to the front, to make sure adults get an aisle and that we will have overhead space for carry-ons. Pay to pre-check,” she lists off. “I am TSA approved, but we pay to make sure everyone has the pre-check so that we don’t have to wait in crazy lines. … Needless to say, this adds up very quickly.”

What’s Changed?

Corinne McDermott, founder of Have Baby Will Travel, shared how the price of traveling with family keeps going up. “There are only three options: Pay to sort it out online, use your time to sort it out on the phone or hope to sort it out at the gate,” she says. “Choosing to fly, we don’t get to set the rules. We must play by their rules. You have to swallow a lot of unpleasant things, it is not fair, but it is the way it is now.”

Jessica Hartshorn, entertainment editor for Parents Magazine, says changes have been quick and rough on family travel. “Having covered family travel for 20 years as a journalist, and been traveling with my own kids for 15 years, I definitely remember the old advice to book an aisle and window seat for yourself and your kid, or yourself plus lap baby and your partner,” she says. “The idea was that no one was likely to book the middle seat. But these days, planes run a very tight ship, literally. Every seat gets filled. There’s no gaming the system so you luck out with an empty spot in your row.”

What’s There to Do?

  • Book it right: Know your options and take advantage of best case planning. Learn what choices exist for your trip and create an itinerary to have as little stress as possible. Try to avoid early morning flights. Not only does this give your family the benefit of a decent night’s sleep, but it keeps you out of the way of commuter travel. Plan flights with few or no connections. And if you must connect, leave plenty of room for delays and other hiccups.
  • Know the rules: Plan around them and plan for extra time. For example, TSA limits liquids so simply do not make that an issue. Plan to buy food and beverages once beyond security to avoid any potential delays. If you are traveling with breast pumps or related feeding supplies, become well versed not only in TSA regulations but also language and expectations (for example frozen means completely so. Anything more liquefied than solid ice will cause a delay.) Make sure your children know the rules and what to expect as well. An excellent source of information is Have Baby Will Travel’s checklist.
  • Be prepared with a family strategy, patience and tools for the road. Turn the whole of the experience into an adventure where you make your way to victory as a team. Get kids involved with choosing snacks, what they will do to occupy themselves while waiting or while on the flight. Design anything that will get them on board for a positive trip with bonus points for good attitudes. Many parents bring gifts, surprises, offer extended screen time and invent other ways to win while en route. I am still an old-school fan of I-Spy (airports make for great people watching). Make sure the whole family is part of the fun of getting from point A to part B.
  • Pay up. Know you need to make the investment to avoid the usual problems of family air-travel. Factor this into your budget — upgrade to guarantee pre-assigned seating together, TSA -pre-check, extra checked baggage, front of plane seating, even airline lounge passes — anything that will simplify the trip. If you can budget for it, the cost (which can quickly add up) beats the alternative of a tension-filled trip and sets your whole family up for an excellent adventure.

All indicators point toward family travel getting more challenging as the year continues on, and  Thanksgiving and the winter holidays are coming. This pushes fares, rates and congestion up, and tension and chaos even higher. So enjoy summer’s last hurrah. And when you get back, start to plan to winter holiday travel early and prepare to pack your patience.

Julia Beck is the founder of the It’s Working Project and Forty Weeks. She tweets @TheJuliaBeck.

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